Tracey Emin and William Blake in focus. Tate Liverpool. 10-03-17.

My Bed, Tracey Emin 1998, and Nebuchadnezzer, William Blake 1795-c1805

Tracey Emin and William Blake are an interesting pairing for an exhibition. Their work shares a keen sense of draughtmanship and the use of a strong dramatic line- Tracey Emin can draw quite beautifully, something which people who have not seen much of her work don’t always realise, and for Blake his ability as a draughtsman was at the core of his skill as a master printmaker. More than anything though it is the deeply personal, dramatic nature of their work that links them for me. Everything that Emin makes or draws is searingly honest and direct, straight from the heart, and when you look at Blake’s work you can see his demons being exorcised and driven straight onto the page. Blake had little recognition in his own lifetime, he was often thought of as mad, thanks to his headstong temperament and unconventional behaviour. He was a true visionary who went his own way and produced work that proved to be both ground breaking and influential. A true original. Tracey Emin has done the same in her career to date, attracting a lot of praise along with some criticism, particularly for work like My Bed, which she made in 1998.

Nebuchadnezzer, who lived from c.605-c.562 was the second king of the Babylonian empire, a powerful, warlike all conquering figure who enlarged the empire which he inherited from his father and embarked on great civic projects, temples, processional roads and bridges. Blake has chosen to show him in not in his pomp but in his later years, when he became a vulnerable elderly man, irrational and suspicious of even his family. This led to the break down of his empire in the years after his death. It is a powerful image in which we can still see the power and dignity of a once great ruler, reduced to an almost animal like state as he crawls along the ground, naked and unkempt. His hair is long and wild, dragging along the wet ground and his nails are uncut, making his hands and feet look like great clawed paws. We can still see the strength of his muscles and the bulging blood vessels but this strength is now achieving nothing. He stares out, wide eyed, unsure of where he is or what he is doing. It is an image of desperation, a cry for help.

Tracey Emin’s My Bed is also a cry for help from the year 1998, almost twenty years ago now. It records the moment when she looked at the wreckage of her bed, in effect the wreckage of her life, and realised I can make Art out of this. I can survive. I can grow. It records a turning point in her life. We are so used to seeing this work now that the bravery and originality of removing the object wholesale and placing it in a gallery, exactly as it was, as a record of the squalor and pain of that moment, is hard to appreciate. It is an object so powerful that even people who have little interest in Art will often have something to say about it. There are strong opinions and controversy, perhaps because there is no visible skill on show. “We could all do that”. Well perhaps we could……….. but we didn’t, did we? The power of that moment when Tracey Emin DID do that still resonates. Unless we are very lucky we have all had those desperate moments when life reached a turning point for us and this bed represents those moments. It was rock bottom for Emin. The only way was up. Her creativity would save her- just as it did William Blake. So long as they could continue to produce Art they could both survive.

For You. An installation by Tracey Emin. Liverpool Cathedral. 11-03-17


The thing which I find most impressive about our British cathedrals is, strangely enough, not the grandeur, the wonderful stained glass, or the majestic pillared naves inside them, it is the way that they are able to grow and change with the times. They are open, inclusive spaces which have stubbornly resisted the temptation to fossilise and this is why their congregations are growing while parish churches mostly decline. They understand that people today are not joiners. We like to find our own way and come to our own conclusions and each of us has a different starting point. There are no easy right answers. Those who are not steeped in religious culture- and that is many of us- need to be given a chance to have time out and think. A cathedral gives those who walk through the doors an opportunity to do that. Of course there are services and if you want to learn about Christianity you can do that, but you can also learn about yourself. You can sit in silence, take in the beauty and the quietness around you and work out for yourself what you think, rather than being told. In medieval times a criminal could seek sanctuary in them, and know that they were safe until the coroner arrived to bring official justice and we can still take sanctuary from our own lives in a different way. They provide a breathing space.

It is a brave thing for a cathedral to commission a modern Art work and place it centre stage in a traditional setting and it is also a brave thing for an artist to attempt. Tracy Emin’s installation under Liverpool Anglican cathedral’s west window- a huge area of stained glass with four windows covering 150 square metres by Carl Johannes Edwards was first put in place as a temporary installation in 2008 as part of the celebrations for Liverpool’s European city of culture year. It is a single sentence in pink neon, in her own handwriting and it reads “I felt you and I knew you loved me.“ It is a deliberately ambiguous statement- one with great power- which allows us to bring our own needs, experiences and concerns to it and it accepts everybody. We have all given and received love, throughout our lives, in many different forms and from many different sources. We may not be able to put its meaning into words, which is why so many people keep trying, but we know what it is when we feel it.

The installation is visible from almost everywhere in the cathedral, either wholly or in part. It keeps reappearing as you walk around the space and becomes almost like a mantra, reminding us gently of the most important thing about faith and the most important and noble thing about human beings- our capacity for love.

When it was installed Tracy Emin said that she wanted to “make something for Liverpool cathedral about love and the sharing of love” and she has succeeded quite beautifully. Everything in Liverpool Anglican cathedral was placed there to express love of God and her work opens up this truth so that all people, of any faith and none, can think about what is the best part of us all. It’s title, For You, is a very personal one and it reminds us that love is a gift, rather than a decision or an obligation.

The architect Giles Gilbert Scott devoted most of his adult life, from the age of 24 to his death at the age of 62, to building Liverpool Anglican cathedral from soft local sandstone. The foundation stone was laid in 1904 and he died without seeing it completed but he was able to put the last tower finial in place. The work was finally completed in 1978 and only the west end, where the Benedicite window and the installation is set, differs from his original plan. I’m sure that Tracy Emin’s work would surprise him but I hope he would be pleased that his great project continues to inspire and grow and that it can still mean something in a much changed and much more secular world.

All Creatures- curated by Mark Hearld. Scarborough Art Gallery.

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All Creatures, the summer 2016 exhibition at Scarborough Art Gallery is both fascinating and unsettling. There is something quite eerie about seeing a large number of stuffed animals and birds of many different kinds, still and silent, in close proximity in a way that they never would be in life. So alive and yet so very dead. Bright eyes that see nothing, creatures set in lifelike poses that will never change. Each one of them has achieved a kind of immortality. This is just a tiny selection of the astonishingly diverse life on Earth, seen through death, beauty tinged with sadness. I particularly liked the goose hiding under a display cabinet and the gannet in still flight.

The Victorians loved taxidermy and sometimes took it to extreme lengths in a way that now seems strange to us. This exhibition helped me remember why. Bringing things back to “life” was part of their fascination with death. It was also a way to get to see animals closely when there was little opportunity to see images of them in the wild. As such it was also a tool for study and this was the motivation behind the collection which Mark Hearld has chosen from.

Mark Hearld’s own work is anything but eerie. It is joyous and life affirming. It was good to see some examples full size after seeing and sending so many small cards and to be able to take in the texture of the collages. They were much bigger than I had expected them to be and they had great presence and personality, able to compete easily with the collection of real creatures around them. The gaze of the seagull- one which I see from real birds every day- was perfectly captured and I would have loved to take home the arctic hare. The huge monchrome lino print of birds in a tree celebrated bird life in a way that the taxidermy never quite managed. I wished that more of Mark’s own work had been included and it would have been good to see them intermingled with the collection in a more direct way.

An atmospheric and thought provoking exhibition. I shall be going back.

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A Lesson in Sculpture with John Latham. Henry Moore Institute. Leeds.

I have no Art training- I have just done a lot of looking- so visiting an exhibition called A Lesson in Sculpture about John Latham, an artist who I had never heard of was a bit of a challenge. I always think of the Henry Moore Institute as quite hardcore whatever it is showing. It’s a serious place, quite forbidding behind its sleek, grey, modern facade- a fortress of Art which seems to be built for people who are in the know. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that of course, but it can be quite daunting. You don’t go in there to parade your ignorance.

My first reaction was to rush over to the two Cornelia Parker pieces, My Soul Aflame (1997) and Just When I Need Him Most (2005) and greet them like old friends. I know and love her work and I had seen them before in her exhibition at the Baltic in Gateshead. Two charred hymnbooks, rescued from a church that was struck by lightning in Lyrtle,Texas, open at the pages showing the hymns which give them their titles. When I told a committed Christian about them after first seeing them he looked at me wide eyed and said, “I wonder why God did that?” An atheist would enjoy the wit and irony. I stood in front of them thinking about how fragile life is, how objects can change and resonate through time, and how we can never really know.
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It took a while, and an interesting conversation with one of the people guarding the fortress, before a return visit was able to help me start to see what was going on in John Latham’s work. Like Cornelia Parker he was also interested in time and transformation and changing objects quite violently. Often this involved books. Destroying books is an action with a lot of forceful associations, most of them unpleasant. Latham was removed from his teaching post at St Martin’s College for “distilling the essence” of a library book- a fine euphemism after seeing what he has done to some other books. It was a book of critical essays about Art by Martin Greenberg and his action seems to me to be both appalling and admirable- a nice example of Art triumphing forcibly over one of its hangers on. The books in this exhibition which Latham has destroyed to make his work don’t seem to me to be forlorn, maligned objects. You may not be able to read them any more but they are still there, surviving trauma, and the knowledge that they have already passed on cannot be so easily wiped out. There is real power in them as they skewer each other, lie there half hidden amongst the wreckage, or remain frozen in time, stopped in motion as they collide with each other. It’s all quite macho, cold and scientific, very male, especially the room which celebrates all the anonymous work done in the coal industry where piles of red shale and coal waste have been designated as sculpture with a soundtrack of shovelling.

I like the beauty, wit and thoughtfulness of Cornelia Parker’s work so much better but I think I was beginning to see where John Latham was coming from. Who knows?
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Terry Frost. Leeds Art Gallery. 26-08-15

Terry Frost is one of the most important British painters of the twentieth century. He was a modernist who worked in Cornwall and then Yorkshire, producing abstract work which has a fine sense of colour and line. I hadn’t seen his work properly before but the exhibition at Leeds Art Gallery gave me a chance to have a good look at some of his best work and I liked it very much.

I spent a long time looking at two of his Yorkshire paintings, High Yellow, Yorkshire c1955 and Orange and Black, Leeds c1957.

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      High Yellow, Yorkshire. c1955 Terry Frost.

High Yellow suggested to me a patchwork of fields seen from above. It is a beautifully balanced work- calming and satisfying to look at. Abstraction with its roots in the natural landscape where I grew up. I would have liked to take it home.

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Orange and black, Leeds. c1957 Terry Frost.

Orange and Black is a very dynamic painting with plenty of energy and presence. It would dominate any room that you put it in and the sheer depth of vibrant colour seems to glow with a light of its own. It is almost like a stained glass window and your eye is led into its depths through the central shape and the vertical lines.

In the 1960s he taught in California and some of the bright, playful sculpture and painting that he produced at that time is also on display. I liked the earlier work that was more rooted in landscape better but the hanging discs casting shadows on the white walls of the gallery looked very much at home.

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I wish that the group of small children who were adrift among the paintings in high visibility jackets with their nursery staff had found someone to engage with them. One of two of them were showing an interest in the colours and shapes on the walls but they needed someone to ask them what they thought. It was the kind of work that might have given them something to talk about if the right questions had been asked. A lovely, uplifting selection of work which is a nice legacy of someone who knew how to look.

The First 60 Years of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Scarborough Art Gallery. 11-07-15

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The Stephen Joseph theatre is sixty years old this this year- two years older than I am- and for someone who has been seeing productions there for thirty years the celebratory exhibition at Scarborough art gallery is a fascinating walk back through time. Theatre is an impossible art form to recreate- you are either there to see it at a given moment or you are not- and that is what makes it so special to those who love it. When it is gone it is gone. What we are shown in the exhibition are ghosts. Posters, photographs, costumes, props, designs, fragments of something that once lived and breathed. These fragments help us connect with the past, whether it is thirty years ago or last October. Oh the memories………… hand painted publicity from the seventies, two of the original seats which came to Westwood after the Floral hall was demolished, (I might have sat in one of them in either venue!) the white fur coat with a magnificent train that Sarah Parks wore as Marlene Dietrich, relics from the lifetime of a theatre. Magic props. Memories of plays that I saw, plays that I missed, plays that went on to be performed all over the world after their birth on a tiny round stage.

Woman_in_mindIt says a lot about both my family and the town of Scarborough that it took me until 1985- well after I had become a theatre nut- to walk through the doors into the old Theatre in the Round at Westwood for the first time. Our family holidays were about seeing the big summer shows and that was what both they and the town valued most. I struck lucky. It was the original production of Woman in Mind, one of Alan Ayckbourn’s best plays. I was completely entranced by both the play and the space. At that point I had seen nothing like it before. Even my dad had to admit as we walked out that “if they put that on in a proper theatre that wouldn’t be a bad play”. I have been going back throughout the thirty years that have passed since. I have seen some of the best theatre there that you could ever wish for and a few real turkeys. No playwright and no theatre company gets it right every time over that kind of timescale and that’s fine- it’s what makes it so special when it works. The stakes are high and you sit there in hope.

I have even performed there myself, back in the Westwood days when there was a break in the professional season and amateur companies were allowed to mount productions. It’s a thrilling space to act in- a very exposed circular arena where there is no place to hide. It demands truth and complains loudly when it doesn’t get it. Seeing an actor like Michael Gambon or Judd Hirsch at full pitch in an intimate space like that is a wonderful privilege. You are just lucky to be there in one of the few available seats without having to pay through the nose for the chance. Even today you can get a midweek matinee ticket for ten pounds if you are quick off the mark. I mean…….. come on, why wouldn’t you? So many famous names have been on stage in Scarborough that it is easy to forget that you saw them there first, I was surprised to find out, for example, that I saw Martin Freeman in the revival of The Woman in White back in 1997 when I saw his face in the exhibition. In contrast I have a very clear memory of Tamsin Outhwaite. I had picked her out as a star before she even opened her mouth as I watched her on stage flicking sulkily through a magazine.

It was good to read so many supportive quotes for the theatre around the walls. Alan Ayckbourn’s gift to the town has not always had the appreciation from the town of Scarborough that it deserves. A town councillor once famously remarked that the small subsidy which the council used to give would be better spent on public toilets. Luckily Ayckbourn’s loyalty to both the town and his mentor Stephen Joseph’s vision of a very special way of making theatre ensured that the town got a theatre whether it wanted one or not. It has been a lifeline and a joy to me through most of my adult life, growing and flourishing against the odds and it is still there, a beacon of live performance at the top of Westborough. That is something to celebrate. Long may it continue.

One Day Something Happens, Paintings of People. Leeds Art Gallery. 18-04-15

One Day Something Happens, Paintings of People, at Leeds Art Gallery is a small, but diverse exhibition. It is unlikely that anyone wandering around it would find that everything appeals to them but the payback for that is the certainty that something will. Here are a few quick thoughts about the three paintings which made me stop and think longest. Lucian Freud’s Girl in a Green Dress, a small, early work painted in 1954 is an intense, searching portrait. He has really looked hard at the girl’s face and that gives it a presence, a dignity that belies its size. Every brush stroke counts and we are shown the texture of skin, hair and the corduroy of her jacket. It is both intimate and unforgiving. This is an artist who paints exactly what he sees. She is calm and composed but we want to know what she is thinking. There is something going on behind those eyes. IMG_0035 Walter Sickert’s painting, Juliet and the Nurse, painted in 1935 is just the opposite. It is a blur of emotion. Great distress is being received with tenderness and compassion- a portrait of a relationship rather than two people. It is sketchy, almost slapdash as though Sickert was standing there in front of a real moment trying to capture it as quickly as he could before it was lost. Wisdom and refuge is being given by someone who is old enough to have been there and known suffering. IMG_0033 I did not know of George Sauter at all before I saw this painting and I have only managed to find one other image by him on the web. He painted The Dispute in 1912 and I liked it very much. It is a very satisfying painting to look at, the colours, the fall of the light and the gleaming surfaces are beautifully rendered. What really interested me though was the contrast between this calm, composed composition and the action that it shows. It picks out a precise moment in an argument. The woman on the right has just spoken and her face is now set in defiance as she waits for a reaction. The woman on the left is about to speak, holding up her hand as she rejects what has been said. It is a moment of silence in the midst of anger and confusion and it reminded me of Vermeer’s gift for pinpointing a moment of drama in exactly the same way. IMG_0041 Each of these paintings fulfills the title of the exhibition in their own way. Something happens when an artist stands in front of a subject and it is still happening now when we open our mind and look at what took place- no matter how many years later.